Last month I wrote a blog about the Prime Minister’s speech on supporting families, where he referred to parenting as a ‘job’, and families as ‘the best anti-poverty measure ever invented’. Where in all this material and professional concern, I asked, was an acknowledgement of caring work in family life?
Seeing the discussion of the projected impacts of Universal Credit on different family types, I have to ask the question again. For today’s report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that working single parents will lose the most income through the Universal Credit system, and second earners in couples will have reduced incentives to work, in contrast to the overall impact of the scheme, which will apparently do more to make work pay for recipients. While transitional arrangements will shield current claimants, the impact assessment looks at what will happen in the longer-term.
So why is this a gender issue? Well, in spite of increasing numbers of hands-on fathers and breadwinning women, 9 out of 10 single parents are still women, and dual-earning households most often have male chief wage earners. Secondary earners are often working part-time and doing most of the childcare in families. So we have two groups of working mothers (single parents, part-time employees) who are likely to find it hard to compensate for the reduced income or reduced incentives to move into or stay in employment, which Universal Credit will present. Because of their caring responsibilities, they are likely to find it difficult to increase hours or pay, in order to make up for any losses, alongside paying for additional childcare.
The government is likely to respond that the offer of 30 hours free childcare, along with rises in income tax thresholds, will help resolve these issues. But as I and many others have pointed out, the childcare proposals are underfunded, and quality childcare is least likely to be available in deprived areas, so that the poorest parents may have problems accessing it. And if you are amongst the lowest earners and/or work part-time, the tax thresholds may not make any difference to you. You will simply be left worse off, and your children will still need to be cared for.
Disincentives for second earners to work under Universal Credit are troubling because they may damage mothers’ future financial prospects. This is firstly because they make it less worthwhile to remain in work, so that more women may spend longer out of the workforce; and secondly because the Universal Credit system proposes making all payments to one person in every household, thus breaking the principle where child-related payments were made to mothers. This second feature may not matter if you are in a good relationship with access to a joint account, but it could be very disadvantageous where unsympathetic partners control access to family finances.
It appears then that the benefits of Universal Credit are not quite as universal as the name suggests. And without acknowledgement of the value – and constraints – of caring work, it is likely to give more credit to men’s work than to women’s.